Is Learning The Harp Harder Than You Thought?

practicing Jul 16, 2017

Is learning the harp harder than you thought?

I can imagine the moment, probably because so many of us experienced something similar. You see the harp. You hear the harp. You fall in love with the harp. You buy a harp. You start practicing the harp.

The next sentence ought to be “You play the harp.”

But that’s not usually how it happens. More often, particularly for the adult beginning harp student, the next sentence is, “This is way harder than I thought it would be.”

I am frequently contacted by adult students who are surprised at the steep learning curve for harp playing and are beginning to wonder if they chose the wrong instrument. The frustration level is even greater for students who are accomplished players of other instruments, particularly pianists.

It seems like the transfer between harp and piano should not be a difficult one considering the essential similarity between the two. However, despite their musical commonalities, the two instruments require almost opposite techniques.

Harp students who don’t have previous musical experience find themselves with a similar challenge. The simple fact is that every harpist must develop their technique.

While there is no shortcut to establishing a solid technical foundation, there are ways to circumvent frustration. The key is to speed up your technical development and keep yourself musically interested at the same time.  

Developing Your Technique

Knowing that your technique will be the limiting factor in your playing should be motivation enough to do some extra technical practice. Naturally, developing your technique is a gradual process, but doubling up on your scales, arpeggios and exercises will speed your way to developing the skill you need to play the pieces you want to play. Some factors to bear in mind:

  1. Harp technique relies on correct form AND relaxation. It takes strength to play the harp, but the strength and resulting rich tone come through relaxation, not through force. Think “releasing the sound” rather than “pulling the string.”
  2. There is a wealth of basic exercise books to choose from. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Conditioning Exercises, Carlos Salzedo
  • Exercises for Agility and Speed, Deborah Friou
  • Levers Up! Thumbs Up!, Kathy Bundock Moore
  • Metodo per Arpa, M. Grossi
  • On Playing the Harp, Yolanda Kondonassis
  1. Take regular lessons. Your best way to a solid technique is with the help and advice of an experienced harp teacher. Good harp technique is not Do It Yourself!
Explore the Harp Repertoire

You don’t have to limit yourself to “baby” pieces or transcriptions of Minuet in G when you’re learning. There is a rich repertoire of musically interesting and original pieces for harpist beginners. The collections I list below are just a few of the beginning harpist collections that are available and are not just for young people.  

  • Little Harp Book, Grandjany
  • Minstrel’s Gallery, Skaila Kanga
  • Solos for Sonja, Ruth K. Inglefield
  • Tiny Tales, Salzedo
  • Trois Petites Pièces, Grandjany

I also like the Harp Olympics series by MacDonald and Wood. Although the books are styled for younger students, the systematic approach and the carefully graded repertoire appeal to students of all ages.

Refresh Your Practice Techniques

If you haven’t practiced an instrument since you were in high school, or if you never really learned to practice, this is the time to bring your practice skills to an adult level. You shouldn’t be practicing the same way you did in your teenage years: get your assignment from your teacher, play it over and over again, go back for your next lesson to find out how you did.

You can bring more focus, intention and direction to your practice now. You are able to take responsibility for your learning, not just for a weekly assignment. You want to develop the practice skills and techniques that will allow you to make the most effective and efficient use of your practice time.

Your teacher is an excellent resource for you, so be certain to ask for his or her advice. I also am a fan of a little but very helpful book, Scientific Practice, by Jane Weidensaul. And of course, you can check out my own book, Kaleidoscope Practice: Focus, Finish and Play the Way You’ve Always Wanted which comes in a handy PDF version.

A Healthy Dose of Patience

Lastly, don’t forget that this process will take a little time. Playing the harp is truly a “lifetime sport.” You will get there, just probably not today. But if you practice today, who knows what you might be able to do tomorrow?


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